Magnificent Guanajuato!

We met Saya at the University steps on our first Sunday morning in Guanajuato. We were accompanying her on a field visit to one of the sites where The Muskoka Foundation works its magic. As she hailed a taxi she told us not to jump in yet, saying she had to first ask the driver if he was prepared to take us to our destination, explaining that taxis sometimes refused because of the ‘dangerous’ area we’re going through. So many thoughts crowded my mind as we got into the taxi and set off to visit Casa de las Nubes…

The community refer to Casa de las Nubes as “the squatter settlement” as it’s a community built in an unregistered zone. It’s located on top of a mountain overlooking the city, “Casa de las Nubes” literally means “Home in the clouds”. The people living there call their home “Los Angeles” which means ‘the angels’.  Standing amidst the community members gathered for their Sunday meeting, the magnificent view from this mountaintop certainly was that afforded angels. We were aware the irony that in this city, the poorest people had the best view.

It’s a challenging life for the people of ‘Los Angeles’ because of the isolated terrain, lack of access to water and electricity and the impact of poverty. The work of The Muskoka Foundation is born of the belief that every child deserves to succeed at learning, connect positively with others and live in an environment where they are not in danger. That day’s community meeting was addressing topics such as collecting money to fill the water tank and discussing positive tactics for addressing crime being experienced by the community which consisted mainly of women, because their men have to travel to find work.

We greeted people gathered for the meeting in basic Spanish and shared a giggle with children holding puppies. I was sitting in the dust with some children and felt a little arm wrapping around my shoulders in a hug. I looked up at a magnificent grin and soon knew the little boy’s name was Theo and that he was offering me a chance to hold his puppy. I was acutely aware that my basic command of Spanish was limited to expressing my own needs and not exploring the needs of others. I could ask someone their name or order a few beers but was unable to ask the people around me anything about their lives…

The following morning Paul and I woke early for our first day of Spanish school. As we walked the cobbled lanes we were amongst children walking to their first day of school and university students gathered for early morning lectures. The week flew by as we settled into our routine of early morning starts and classes until the afternoon. Paul learned Spanish much faster than I did and soon he was making jokes in Spanish and had the teachers laughing. He was the class larrikin and I was the serious one, fretting over words and phrases which didn’t seem to stick as readily for me in practice. I could read and understand and knew how to construct sentences, but having a conversation or understanding what someone said was something entirely different! Somehow the words I knew didn’t “just come up in every conversation!”

I haven’t been well and struggling with mouth ulcers. It got so bad that I was quite desperate and crying at the drop of a hat. One afternoon I skipped the last 2 lessons of school, because I was just so miserable. I went to a pharmacy to get medication. As Paul was not with me, I had a tough time making myself understood with my limited Spanish. Having to show the pharmacist the inside of my mouth was one thing, but trying to understand what she was saying was another. A man in the queue behind me could speak a bit of English, so he offered to look into my mouth as well and the two of them chatted away in Spanish about what medication I required. I was happy with what seemed to be the right medication, but as I was paying an American couple came into the pharmacy and the husband could speak Spanish. The pharmacist spoke to the American in Spanish and soon he was also asked to look into my mouth and confirm that I had indeed been given the correct medication! I was so embarrassed and close to crying, but the thought which kept me grateful was that at least I did not have a boil on my bum!

Later that day we were out shopping and as I was feeling weak and quite ill, I waited at the shop’s entrance for Paul as he shopped. A security guard came over asking questions and I explained to her in Spanish that I was feeling ill and waiting for my husband. In a caring tone she said something which I didn’t quite understand, but I thanked her as she brought me a chair. Soon after that the store manager arrived, asking me if he should call an ambulance. I obviously declined (with many exclamations of “gracias!”), but started to worry about what I had said in Spanish that had everyone so concerned. When Paul arrived and translated, it transpired that in my limited command of Spanish I had them thinking that I was having a heart attack – hand on my chest I’d said: “I’ve got pain” instead of “I’m unwell”…

Stopping awhile and becoming members of this vibrant community has been incredibly rewarding. Guanajuato is a city built around the mining industry and the university. It’s incredibly hilly and consists of steep cobblestone lanes running in a convoluted maze from the city centre up into the surrounding mountains. We walk everywhere, because the road system is just too complicated. There are tunnels under the city, moving cars where the cobbled lanes can’t. A walk into the city centre is a steep 15 minutes down cobbled lanes, whereas going by bike would be 40 minutes of convoluted driving. Our bikes have not budged since the day we arrived. There’s music and colour everywhere. People are incredibly friendly and the lanes are filled with stalls selling fruit, pastries, flowers, tacos and other eats. On our way to Spanish school we pass people eating taco breakfasts at stalls set up in the lanes, kids buying their lunch or women selling stationary supplies from baskets on the sidewalk. The informal trade is incredible, food stalls are set up outside people’s homes in the mornings and aren’t there in the afternoons.

We have explored most of the city and one day completed >20km on foot! We took the funicular up to the lookout over the city at the Pipila monument, which commemorates an Indian miner who died in a mining revolt. Locals dressed as skeletons and posed with tourists taking photos (at a price) and vendors sold fruit and sweets covered in chilli. We visited the mummy museum which is a macabre display of mummified corpses dug up when families were unable to pay burial taxes. We passed the Callejon Del Beso quite by chance and couldn’t resist posing for a kiss in this narrow alley which is famous for its love story between Carmen and Luis. The Mercado Hildago market is something we only admired from the outside, as shopping is not a priority for us. We walked the very steep cobbled lanes up to the Presa de la Olla dam and enjoyed a few beers whilst watching people paddle little boats. One afternoon we joined class mates from Spanish school on a tour of one of the local mines, then we caught the bus back into the city. Paul has loved putting each day’s lessons to practice: asking directions or striking up conversations, just for fun. We wanted to immerse ourselves, learning Spanish and immersed we certainly are…

We have had a few concerned messages from family about our safety, following the recent American Government alert about Mexico in the media. We have been aware of the incidents reported and were actually in some of the places at the time (Ensenada, La Paz, San Cabo in the Baja and Mazatlan on mainland Mexico.) What I can report is that we have never felt threatened, nor has any place we’ve been to been unsafe. The trouble has been between rival drug cartels and since we haven’t frequented such places, we’ve been okay. We’re not being naive about dangers but we aren’t being paranoid either. Our approach has been to stay informed and to try and understand. As an example: when we were first concerned about the taxi not wanting to go through a ‘dangerous’ place on that first Sunday we had a discussion about the reasons why. We came to understand that taxi’s are soft targets, as they carry a lot of cash and that the road was a dirt track. So taxis were simply taking a sensible approach to the reality of their situation and the possible ‘danger’ for themselves – something which had no bearing on us. We walked home safely later that day and not once did we feel anything untoward. We have chosen a balanced approach – to be aware of the reality of situations through speaking with locals, challenging the media and taking a sensible approach with minimal risk.  We also speak regularly to others who are currently on the road in Mexico and Central America and we have a very good idea of the areas to avoid. It’s pretty much the same approach to safety we’d be taking back home…and Mexico is home for the moment.

One thought on “Magnificent Guanajuato!

  1. My darling M – what is causing your mouth ulcers- is it too little vit C (for instance) Did the Pharmacy’s suggestion help? I am worried you are not feeling well – how are you now?
    It sounds like a magical place with character & personality
    You are stepping into the adventure zone as expected – good on your courage
    Love you & take care xxx


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